In the most epic Tour de France ever, American eyes have been fixed squarely on the experts of Lance Armstrong, despite the Texan proving time and again he’s no longer capable of sending him into the rapture he once did (though his performance in today’s Stage 17 had the understated dignity and grit you would expect on such a monumental occasion).
With Lance falling from the leading groups on the mountains, the next hope has been Levi Leipheimer, a two-time Tour stage winner who has five times finished in the top 12 of the Overall Classification.
But it’s another name, one carrying far less notoriety and pomp to the shores of France, that has become the apple of American cycling.
That rider is Chris Horner, the Bend, Oregon native who currently sits 10th overall in the 2010 Tour after a brilliant ride through the Pyrenees. Horner has quietly plied his trade in virtual anonymity in the professional peloton for almost 15 years, and is now having the ride of his life.
In the major categories of American professional cycling, Horner is a nomad. He isn’t—or rather, wasn’t—regarded as a major GC threat like Armstrong, Leipheimer, or Christian Vande Velde. He didn’t enjoy the visibility garnered by Armstrong’s US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teammates like George Hincapie. And by rising through the European ranks prior to the Armstrong-induced surge in the sport’s popularity in the US, he was never billed as the next American star as the likes of David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson.
Instead, the now 38-year-old followed a most unusual path to the top of the Col de Tourmalet. After several domestic wins in his first two years in the professional peloton, he made an ill-fated move to Francaise des Jeux, where he languished for three seasons.The French team spit Horner back across the Atlantic as a 28-year-old who convincingly failed to live up to the pressures of European cycling. It was the start of an illustrious reclamation project that is now deservedly reaching its zenith.
His first win outside the 50 States came in 2000 with the overall win at the Tour de Langkawi, a Malaysian stage race that has been notoriously good to continental teams from the Americas. Soon after, his dominance of the American racing scene began in earnest. He was named the champion of USA Cycling National Racing Calendar from 2002 to 2004, including wins of the overall and stages in numerous continental races.
Horner’s breakthrough win of the inaugural Tour of Georgia in 2003 served notice that he was ready to compete with the elite of Europe again and set off a string of impressive finishes. He came largely out of nowhere to finish ninth at the 2004 Road Race World Championships, earning him a move back into the European peloton with Saunier Duval.
He rewarded his new team almost instantly with a win in Stage 6 and fifth place overall in the Tour de Suisse in 2005. He came close to glory in the Tour, finishing 10th on Stage 13 after a long breakaway that was just caught by a field sprint at the line.
The next season, now with Davitamon-Lotto, he took home a stage in the Tour de Romandie and finished tenth at Paris-Nice. The following season, he managed a 15th place finish in the Tour, his best finish until this year’s dream ride.
The man they call “the Smiler” for his affable personality and good humor on the roads has continued to defy the odds with what is arguably the best season of his career in the year of his 39th birthday. He shocked many by becoming a force in the spring classics season, finishing in the top ten at Fleche Wallonne (seventh), Liege-Bastogne-Liege (eight), and Amstel Gold Race (tenth) in addition to the outright win at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco over local favorite Alejandro Valverde.
As you would imagine from his nickname, Horner is also one of the more venerable men in the peloton. Despite the increased demands of his expanded European schedule, he still stays true to his routes by participating in the cyclocross season over the winter. In a sport that’s used social media as well as any to connect fans and athletes, Horner is at the vanguard, publishing a daily blog and a regular video diary in addition to constant updates via Twitter.
He’s the most likeable cyclist you’ve probably never heard of. But he’s vaulting his way to the top of the American cycling heap.